FCC’s spectrum-auction lapse stalls next-generation 911 funding

The U.S. Senate declined to vote on the House's Spectrum Innovation Act, a bill that would have provided $10 billion for next-generation 911.
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The Federal Communications Commission’s recent lapse in authority to auction off wireless spectrum has members of the House of Representatives concerned about the United States’ ability to stay competitive in a global wireless market. It has others concerned that the upgrade to next-generation 911 just lost its primary funding source.

The U.S. Senate recently declined to vote on the House’s Spectrum Innovation Act, a bill that would have funneled spectrum fees into numerous initiatives, including $10 billion for upgrading aging 911 systems. The Senate’s also failed to take action on any other bill that extended either the FCC’s ability to license wireless spectrum or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s power to arbitrate spectrum holdings.

The recent lapse marks the first time in three decades since the FCC was granted the power to auction off wireless spectrum for commercial uses. Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, told StateScoop he’s concerned that the national upgrade to next-generation 911 will continue to go without the funding it needs.

“What would happen [without funding] is our 911 system would essentially collapse under its own weight at some point,” Fontes said. “It’s been demonstrated in California. The number of outages that are occurring out of the old systems are increasing, and at some point they’re going to go out for longer periods of time and the service of 911 will be degraded substantially.”


During a House Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing Friday, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said the FCC’s spectrum auctions have netted the U.S. Treasury more than $100 billion since they began in 1993. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., called the lapse a “completely avoidable failure” that has her “extremely concerned” that the U.S. will lose more ground to China in the wireless spectrum market.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., both cited the need for a federal mechanism to spur innovation and collect spectrum fees that would have funded next-generation 911 and the federal initiative to “rip and replace” Huawei and ZTE equipment.

“Time is of the essence,” Pallone said. “We can’t rest on past successes when China has already reportedly made three-times as much spectrum available for 5G compared to the United States.”

A full upgrade to next-generation 911, which the federal government in 2018 estimated could cost as much as $12.7 billion, promises to equip the nation’s thousands of public safety answering points with digital technology, replacing the analog systems widely used today. The ability to send and receive photos, video, text and location data, while also seamlessly handling call transfers across jurisdictions, are key features promised by the new technology.

Fontes said it’s “absurd” that the country’s 911 system is stuck using the previous century’s technology.


“If our members of Congress agree we should have a dying 911 system, this is certainly one way to do it — failure to fund the transition to 21st century next-generation 911 technology,” he said. “The time is now. This is an urgent plea. We cannot continue to throw good money after failing, dying technology that is just voice-centric.”

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